As you drive into Decatur, you won't see any signs — yet, at least — proudly announcing it as the “Birthplace of sculpture pioneer David Smith.”
You won't find a historical marker in front of 347 N. 10th St. identifying it as the site where his family's house once stood, and you won't find any of his art.
“I think David Smith was a little-known fact to a handful of people in the community until this project came around,” community volunteer Trois Hart said of the Decatur Sculpture Tour, which is in its second year and unveiled this year's sculptures in June — none of which are by Smith.
But Smith's name is widely known in the art world, where he is considered the first American to craft welded steel sculpture and a pioneer in that medium worldwide.
“Certainly, in America, he is considered to be the fountainhead of modern sculpture, like (Jackson) Pollock and (Willem) de Kooning were to abstract painting,” said Peter Stevens, executive director of the David Smith Estate, a nonprofit organization in New York that works to preserve and promote Smith's legacy.
Decatur's reconnection to Smith, who was age 59 when he died in a car crash in May 1965, results largely from the work of artist Gregory Mendez, a Decatur native who now lives in Fort Wayne.
Mendez said Smith only warranted a brief mention in art history classes he took in college. It wasn't until he had graduated and begun making metal sculptures himself that he researched some of the pioneers in that field. He was startled to discover Smith was from his hometown.
“It's a small town,” Mendez said of Decatur. “I think people tend to research things they are interested in.”
Without a local art museum or much in the way of public displays of art, he said, the link to Smith apparently faded away until he and others revived it by organizing Decatur's sculpture tour.
Smith was born Roland David Smith on March 9, 1906, to Harve and Golda Smith, it says in a chronology on the David Smith Estate website, www.davidsmithestate.org.
His ancestors had been among the early settlers of the area, rolling into to Decatur in a covered wagon, Stevens said.
Smith's father worked as an engineer with a small telephone company. His mother was a teacher.
“The details of his life had a huge influence on his work,” Stevens said. “His roots were very important to him.”
Growing up in a small community in a rural area, Smith wasn't exposed much to art or to creating it, Stevens said.
“What he brought was kind of this combination of rural and the industrial,” he noted. “He was very influenced by the railroad, seeing railroad cars and playing around them.”
His father was described as an “inventor,” as were several other people around them, Stevens said. That practical inventiveness later showed itself in Smith and his work.
Smith also was influenced by his mother, who was very religious and strict, Stevens said. He spent most of his life rebelling against the traditional, including organized religion.
One of his more famous sculptures, “Pillar of Sunday,” made in 1945, offers his commentary on organized religion, Stevens said. The piece is part of the collection at the Indiana University Art Museum in Bloomington.
Smith's family moved to Paulding, Ohio, in 1921, when he was about age 15. The family's house in Decatur later was torn down, and another home was built on the lot, said Louise Wolpert, Adult Services supervisor and young adult coordinator at the Adams Public Library System in Decatur.
Smith reportedly still has distant relatives in the Decatur area, Stevens said, but he wasn't close to them.
While attending high school in Paulding, Smith enrolled in a Cleveland Art School correspondence course in cartooning and created illustrations for the school's yearbook.
“He had a real good graphic sense,” said Bob Schroeder, a metal smithing instructor at IPFW. “He drew all of the time.”
Schroeder said Smith's sense of graphic design also was influenced by Dorothy Dehner, an abstract impressionist painter whom Smith met after moving to New York in 1927 and married in December of that year. Smith would produce drawings and paintings throughout his career.
Smith also was heavily influenced by one of his summer jobs as a young man — working on the assembly line at the Studebaker automobile factory in South Bend.
The work, which included welding, “set off a spark” when Smith later saw early welded sculptures made by European artists Pablo Picasso and Julio Gonzalez, Stevens said. It wasn't just the idea of using welding to create art, but the concept of using parts to construct a unified whole — just as a shiny, new car is a product of many parts put together along an assembly line.
Smith started making welded metal sculptures in 1933, at age 26, after seeing a reproduction of one of Gonzalez's works and being given two small sculptures made by Gonzalez, Stevens said.
“What he did is take this form of sculpture, which there already existed a model for, and poured his life into it,” Stevens said. “He is the person who broadened this innovation into what became a major method for creating sculpture.”
Smith also was among the leaders in using an assortment of metal “found objects” to create sculpture, Schroeder said.
As a person, Smith was known as “difficult,” Stevens said.
“He had a strong sense of self,” he added. “He always had to put himself and his work ahead of other pressures.”
A muscled man standing just over 6 feet tall, Smith had a big impact on people he met, Stevens said.
As one of his ex-wives said, “'The second he walked in a room, he was the center of attention,'” Stevens recalled.
Smith strongly identified himself and other artists with workers.
At his farm, he called his rustic studio his “shop.” Smith, who worked from 1942-1944 assembling M-7 tanks and locomotives at the American Locomotive Plant in Schenectady, N.Y., maintained membership in the United Steelworkers union through his life.
His life “really was his work,” Stevens said, and that took a toll on both his family and his finances.
He and his first wife divorced in December 1952. He remarried in 1953, but that union ended in divorce in 1961.
Smith and his second wife, Jean Freas, had two daughters, Rebecca and Candida. The girls were the only real distractions from his work.
In the early part of Smith's career, his art didn't sell. American art collectors interested in modern art all wanted to buy works made in Europe, Stevens said. Smith plowed ahead, however, eventually filling the fields around his farm with about 90 sculptures.
It wasn't until the late 1950s that Smith's work began selling well, Stevens said. The artist poured most of that income, however, into buying equipment and materials to make more art.
Today, Smith's work sells for huge sums: His sculpture “Cubi XXVIII” sold at auction in November 2005 for $23.8 million, Stevens said. Smaller, less historically significant sculptures command about $400,000. His paintings and drawings sell for $70,000 and more.
Back in Indiana
As far as Stevens knows, Smith never returned to Decatur.
During the 1954-1955 school year, Smith taught at Indiana University in Bloomington, his life's chronology said. While there, he learned about forging metal from a blacksmith and then created the 11 sculptures in his “Forging” series.
In the years following his time at IU, Smith went on to create his “Zigs” series of seven sculptures and his “Cubis” series of 28 large, highly reflective, stainless steel sculptures.
“He was one of the first sculptors to experiment with different polishing and finishing techniques on stainless steel,” local artist Mendez said.
Smith's work appeared regularly in exhibitions and art shows around the world.
In February 1965, Smith was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to serve as one of the first members of the National Council on the Arts.
Within three months, however, he died in a car crash near Bennington, Vt.
But Smith's contribution to the art world lives on, even in Decatur.
Several out-of-state artists who created sculptures in this year's Decatur Sculpture Tour wanted to participate so they could say they exhibited a piece in the hometown of David Smith, Mendez said.
One, Matt Miller of Cape Girardeau, Mo., even donated a large sculpture to the city to help it start a collection.
Referring to that gift and to Smith, Mendez said, “He's still having an impact today.”